The Serpent of The Apocalypse
The reality of the draft and the resultant paranoia which had descended upon my collegiate brothers precipitated a sense of indecision in me. Forgetting about the library, I grabbed my coat and fled the dorms like a shell from a cannon, my trajectory at random. Questions squirmed in my head, challenging me as to why I, son of a warrior, would be so panicked by talk of the draft or possible rendezvous with war.
A man of medium height, medium build and straight brown hair to the waist stood before me. His flannel shirtsleeves were rolled up, and his Popeye type forearms, thick below the elbows, dangled from his shoulders and bounced like drumsticks. He had on bell-bottom blue jeans and a large circular peace symbol, made of copper, strung around his neck.
“Good to see you, man. Peace.” Billy Wing held up his two fingers, palm side towards me in greeting. “Where’re you going?”
“No idea,” I said, telling the God’s honest truth with misting breath rising.
“You’re movin’ pretty fast for a guy who’s going nowhere. Like a bat out of hell.”
“Well then,” said Billy with a gentle smile. “Why don’t you come with me to The Apocalypse Café? We can get a cup of tea. Or coffee. Maybe there’ll be a recital—poets hang there all the time.”
“Basement of St Paul’s Chapel.”
I liked Billy, but I wasn’t sure I was supposed to like him. He was a nice sweet-tempered guy, and he had once done me a good turn. I had overslept one day and missed my Freshman Bio lecture. The notes from that day were important to the course, and even when I went around with a tin cup, begging to borrow notes from my classmates, they gave me nothing. Some were even smirking because I was absent the much-needed notes.
But not Billy Wing. He was in the same class, and he waved me over, giving me his notes to copy.
I had looked at him hard. Here was this hippie-dippy kid, smiling, out of step, offering me what I needed most at the moment. And me—I wasn’t sure that it would be worth borrowing notes which were not coming from a starched-collared boy with his anus sewed shut. I didn’t think anyone who would be willing to lend me his notes, without any regret, would be someone worth borrowing from.
Of course, I was prejudiced and a hypocrite, and Billy Wing’s notes were golden, better than any I could have hoped to borrow. After all, he was a Columbia boy. Going further, he was genuinely happy to share whatever I needed that he might possess, and he asked for nothing in return.
“We’re all brothers, man. People have to love each other. The world needs peace.”
I didn’t know then about peace, but I liked Billy, and I knew I could trust him.
“So,” said Billy, “Bat Outta Hell, you coming?”
“Sure—but I’ve only got eighty-three cents.”
“You’re in luck—coffee’s thirty-five. And as a bonus, there’s a guy there who’s reciting diatribes tonight. Strange guy, but you might like him.”
“I could use a change of scenery. Coffee’s good.”
He led me across campus to St Paul’s Chapel and The Apocalypse Café. As we descended circular stairs, dim sconces holding live torches lit the way to a clammy stone crypt under the nave of the church. The walls themselves were quarried stone blocks, stained with the sterile breaths of holy men, the soot of the city and the sweat of generations of students. A sniff of that dank air brought me visions of nuns in billowing habits dragging boys to secret corners where, imbued with the Holy Spirit of the Inquisition, they would rack them until they broke their wills. Now from the dim café ahead, I heard the clank of teacups, reminiscent of rusted chains anchored to dungeon walls. The sounds evoked visions in my head of heavy, iron rings that Gilly had once sworn were in the bowels of St Eustace where, he said in a moment of hyperbole, the Sisters had taken him years before to pay for his sins and for those of mankind. I heard their murmuring voices, too muffled to comprehend.
“You can hear the dead whispering in the catacombs,” I said.
“I knew you’d like it! They say that when Ginsberg and Kerouac were students here, they used to recite in this very place.”
Clusters of droopy longhairs, men and women, were sitting around several candled tables, talking in huddled tones. Some of these others recognized Billy as we sat down, and he nodded and twinkled with happiness. He was a regular, comfortable in surroundings where he was understood.
“You come in here a lot, don’t you?”
“It’s a special place,” he said. “They have a selection of teas like nowhere else. For me, tea has a mysterious history. I think of the Silk Road. Marco Polo. Samarkand, Kashgar and Ancient China. I think of the initial, civilized entanglements of East and West.”
He looked at me with inner peace, but his face changed as he saw my expression.
“You all right?” he asked.
“You look like you saw a ghost.”
“Just a flashback.”
“Bad trip? You on something?”
“No. Nothing like that. Just some not-so-fond memories of me and Gilly getting beaten by the nuns in elementary school. You know, when we were kids.”
“Beaten? For real?”
In my first few years at St Eustace, I obeyed and listened, always with half an eye on the switches on the wall. I lived in terror of the power of the Sisters as they swished through the corridors in their black, billowing habits, pouncing on unsuspecting boys. Initially, I showed them respect, and because of my deference and because I was smart, I became a favorite with the nuns who otherwise hated boys in general. But St Eustace didn’t choose nuns for their ability to teach: the Sisters were married to God, and that was all that ultimately mattered. At times the lessons bored me, and I often read a book in class, nodded off, or talked too much to the kids sitting next to me.
So they hit me.
It was in fifth grade. Sister Moira caught me napping and whacked me on the back of the head with a ruler. I jumped in my chair, still half in twilight, and she darted in quickly like a prizefighter and slapped me hard across the face, “You think you can sleep in my class?” The eyes of every child were upon me as she pulled me by the ear to stand in the front where she made me turn around.
I was still getting my bearings when she hit me on the rump with a switch. It stung physically, but it shamed me badly, and I hated her, blushing from the roots of my hair down to the nails of my toes. Some of the children bent their heads down to hide their faces but looked up to sneak peeks; others turned their gazes away, afraid to watch, while a few brazen kids sniggered into their shirtsleeves. I stood there feeling naked, maybe like Christ himself, in front of this classroom rabble, my masculinity ripped to shreds by nuns who were nothing less than Romans. From that moment, I decided that if I were going to be hit, I would get my money’s worth. If they hit me for breaking the rules, I would make sure that I broke enough rules to justify whatever they did to me. It was war; the gauntlet had been thrown, and I had no idea how I’d ever win. But it didn’t matter; I had to fight, and backing down wasn’t an option.
It got worse. I had been a favorite, but suddenly I was being whipped at least once a week, and hatred boiled my blood. The Sisters demanded that I apologize to them and to God, and I blatantly refused. They got under my skin, and I lost it. I acted out, rebelled, railed against all authority. My rebellion made me think of something I had seen on television around that time: as a Buddhist monk sat cross-legged in the middle of the street with a shaven head and loose black robes, a man came and doused him with gasoline and lit the monk on fire. The flames exploded around him in an aura of orange haze, engulfing him as he slowly burned to death, his skin turning black with black smoke rising off his surfaces. He did not move from his position until, in a final gesture, he lifted his arms upward before tumbling over, onto the ground, in a burning, smoldering mass.
“What’s that?” I had asked.
“Immolation of monks in Saigon,” said my father, looking up from his evening paper, “protesting Diem’s regime.”
The scene was otherworldly. Such a demonstration of determination in the face of unimaginable agony both chilled and awed me. The incredible conviction, the will of this monk, the selflessness in dying for his cause in such a way was an impetus to motivate me beyond any other example the universe could possibly provide, and its power was far greater than that of the Sisters. I became the Breaker of Laws, the Iconoclast, and Shiva, the Destroyer. I would be a burning monk; I would defy the Sisters, but I vowed I would never lift a hand to hit them back even when the temptation was almost unbearable as they sneered and beat me. At the time, I had to tell myself that such self-restraint would count for something when God finally came to weigh my soul to see if I might enter the Gates of Heaven.
The summer after fifth grade was a breather, but my career at St Eustace entered a new phase in sixth grade, the year that Gilly was left back and was placed in the same class as me for the first time. It started when Sister Mary Margaret locked me in a closet in the basement, next to a bucket of ammonia. I sat in the dark against the wall, my feet drawn up to my chest for lack of space, the caustic fumes burning my lungs, making me cough and leaving me in a blazing fury of indignation.
I was let out of the closet at the last school bell and led to see the priest for the first of many subsequent “chats.”
“You’re a top student, Joseph,” he said with a trace of a brogue, his tiny eyes watering.
“J-Bee,” I corrected him.
“Joseph is a great name—the father of our Lord Jesus.”
He had a mound of cheese cubes on his desk and was popping them into his mouth between sentences, his jowls aquiver with delight.
He took a grunting breath and went on, “You’ve been doing so well here, J-Bee. Why the change? Why so defiant?”
I said nothing.
“You should answer when I speak to you.”
“I’m afraid you’ll beat me, Father. Or lock me in a closet.”
“I won’t beat you,” he said, leaning across the desk to touch my arm, chuckling as he attempted to become my confidant.
“Well—then you’ll get your nuns to beat me. They’d beat me for far less than what I might tell you."
By now I had been struck so many times, I wasn’t afraid. They could do what they wanted to me, but my hate had gelled, and my resolve had hardened to the abuse.
“Maybe I will have you beaten— for insolence!”
“Do it!” I said. “If there’s one thing I’ve learned, it’s how to take hard corporal punishment. Father.”
He eyed me narrowly. Then suddenly, craftily, he leaned back in his chair and beamed me a big, bald-faced Irish smile, transforming himself into a fat-faced cherub.
“J-Bee,” he intoned, pausing for drama.
“Father Croghan,” I said, echoing his lilting voice.
“We know you’re a smart one. And I see you’re an angry boy, rather tough and stubborn.”
“Never stubborn, sir. My father is a military man, and I am resolute.” I didn’t deny my anger. He was right about that though I would never confess it— certainly not to him.
“Yes,” he said. “That’s right. And obviously, you love him and look up to him.”
This idea struck me in a funny new way. It was true I revered my father, but then where did he go when the Sisters came at me?
“Yes, Holy Father,” I said, my tone dripping with contempt.
“Holy Father is a title reserved for the Pope as you well know. You may call me Father.”
“Well, you should know that even your own father wouldn’t want you to place him ahead of God.”
“Is that what I’m doing?”
He sat smiling, round faced with crinkles around his blue eyes, waiting for me to respond, but I said nothing.
Oddly, I behaved better after that, taking solace in the idea that, for the moment, I was merely a passenger in my current state, biding my time until I could escape from St Eustace and Norfolk. I surmised that as my father’s world had shaped him, my world would eventually shape me. Where I might escape to, and what that world might be was the subject of fantasy, a dream that relieved the pressure of my trapped existence, giving me hope where there was no light.
So life went on. I got the occasional beating, but in those days, in my neighborhood and at my school, getting hit was not considered abuse. As my mother would say, sitting at her vanity in front of her mirror, powdering, “It’s merely an occasional straightening-out like all boys need.” For me and the other boys at the school, she explained, it was at the hand of the Sisters that our normal growth was assured as we moved toward entering high school where the physical punishment mysteriously stopped.
In the meantime, however, I had no choice but to suffer the Sisters. Yet every once in a while it would get the better of me, and, against all that my father stood for, I would return to the school at night to soothe my defiant nature, throw a rock through a window, and run like hell.
# # #
“You’ve got to be kidding! You were beaten?”
As I sat across from Billy, the change in his face from joy to pain—pain for me and for what I had been through—smothered me. It was too intimate, and he was getting too close. Sure they had beaten me, but the actual events had been distorted over time, and it was this distortion, viewed through the lens of a child’s fearful mind, that had placed me in the dreaded dungeons of that school forever.
I leaned backward and mumbled, “Yeah, for real. Me and Gilly. When we were in grade school, they used to kick the crap out of us. They made me into the man I am today. I’ve got them to thank for everything.”
“Far out. That’s some very dark humor, friend. They had no right to do that.”
“They had the power to do it, so they did it. Right had nothing to do with it.”
Something clicked in me. A gate had opened, and an intangible undercurrent of emotional stew was boiling. Here was this guy I didn’t really know, who actually cared about what I had been through, and I was bristling at him, churning like molten lead. Suddenly I saw that he had innocence and belief, and I saw that the truth was with him.
My father’s view was different. “It’s a matter of perspective, son,” he had said. “Respect for authority is crucial, or society breaks down. There will always be those in power and those who aren’t, and you should align yourself with those in power, especially if you have ambition. With your intelligence, you’ll climb the rungs of power as I have. Cling to the established order— that’s the ticket; it puts the bread on our table, the car in our garage, and gives us the security of living in a neighborhood safe for our children.”
“But what about the other kids? What about Gilly? Shouldn’t we stand up and say how unfair it is?”
“It’s survival of the fittest, Darwin straight and simple. You can’t improve the lot of everyone else on the planet. You can’t expect to succeed if you run with losers, like Gilly. You have to look after yourself and fight to get ahead. Or perish. Ultimately, there’s no other way.”
I wanted to ask him: where are you hiding when your son is being whipped, but I was afraid. Funny that I was more afraid to question him than I ever was to face the whips of the Sisters. As much as I had loved him, I now resented him, and the idea of confronting him filled me with dread. It helped when he gave me feedback from time to time, philosophy through which lens I might see the world more clearly. Such scraps of thoughts, when I was younger, were far better than the later aloofness that accompanied his rapid military promotions and escalating responsibilities.
I obsessed over my feelings. I stewed on what he had said to me, but I could neither rid my mind of his insouciance to my corporal punishment nor escape my fears of confronting him. One day, coming home after a beating that left me unable to sit down, I went to his office door and knocked. I knew he must be inside, so when he didn’t answer, I placed my ear to the wood and heard him speaking on the phone.
I was afraid to bother him so I stood in the hallway, feeling the soreness from my whipping, angry at having to submit to so much pain and humiliation and then to tiptoe around at home as if nothing had happened. Indignation grew which I tried to ignore as my anger and impatience ratcheted. I felt the beating of my heart and its echo in my head as I stood waiting for the door to open.
After some minutes, I pressed my ear to the door again, and, hearing nothing, knocked louder. Still there was no answer.
I turned to walk away, but the pain over my bottom conjoined with a mounting sense of injustice made me turn back without thinking, lift both fists and bang hard on the door. He would hear me now, and I sensed I would awaken the slumbering bear who lurked in its cave. My heart raced with the stimuli of fight or flight for the danger that I had created and for how he might retaliate, but I stood my ground: running was impossible.
The door opened a crack, and he showed his face, the sinews tensing in his neck, his anger glaring at mine.
“What do you want!”
My fear made me mute, but I forced myself to stand there and face him.
“Look,” he said, changing his tone, “I’d like to talk, but I’m under a lot of pressure. So tell me what it is, and let’s be done with it. Right?”
Trying to keep my voice from wavering, I said, “The nuns are beating me!”
He clamped his stare upon me; his face remained placid as the brain behind the face worked overdrive, organizing thoughts to articulate.
“Oh that,” he sighed. “Buck up. You were always a tough kid. That’s how the world works.”
“You want to see my rear end? It’s purple! I can’t sit down!”
“Of course you don’t like it, but I have faith that the priest and the nuns are giving you the education I expect: they’re vaccinating their lessons right into your skin. It’s not a public school; I pay tuition. I made a conscious decision because there’s more to education than academics.”
“You think what they’re doing in that damned school is right?”
“I know you derive perverse pleasure in arguing, but I admonish you to watch your language. Now please, if you don’t mind, I have work.”
“You’re going to let them beat me?”
“Buck up, J-Bee—I’ve got boys dying in Southeast Asia, and you’ve got bruises on your butt. Get it?”
# # #
“That’s a world I don’t understand,” said Billy, hair hanging down, shaking his head slowly.
“It’s a dungeon full of ghosts where they keep Satan chained to the wall,” I said, “in case he’s needed.”
“I want to hear more,” said Billy, “but first, let’s have some tea.”
A light came on behind a translucent, white curtain. A man was sitting behind it, in silhouette. Voices hushed, and the room became still.
“What’s this?” I asked.
“You’re about to meet The Serpent—patron saint of The Apocalypse.”
The voice behind the curtain spoke, whispering through the microphone which both disguised and amplified the speech and accentuated all sounds of “s.”
“I have a confession to make. It’s been on my mind for some time. It disturbs me; it gnaws at me like the creature that gnaws at the root of the tree. It was a crime I committed. It had to be done—it was a blow that I struck for freedom, for America, for the Land of My Fathers and for all the things that we protect when we go to war.
“But it came at a cost, My Brothers, and this time it was I who paid.
“It was a rat’s nest of firepower, a hole in the dirt on a hillside in the South Pacific. A machine gun volley killed a squad of my comrades, pinning down the others. I was there, and I stormed the rat’s nest alone. I put my bayonet through the chest of one of them, feeling bones crunch in my fingers, ramming the blade through rib and lung. The blade was stuck so fast, I couldn’t pull it out. So, turning to the only other rat in the hole, I pulled my service revolver and blew off the front of his head.
“It was a worthy cause. I was celebrated for bravery and decorated by important men at a solemn occasion. A regiment came to attention, and marksmen in dress uniform serenaded me with a rifle salute. But as I say, there was a cost, and I paid it. Years of twisted, sweat-drenching dreams of horror. All at once, I grew from youth to man, but at the same instant, it broke that man and made me an emotional cripple.
“War is never a ‘good cause,’ but sometimes it’s a moral imperative. Without the moral imperative, it’s nothing to ruin your soul for. Beware of wars of questionable merit, born of dubious motives from the minds of scheming men of power. In the current conflict, it will put you in the path of a people’s revolution, a fight to the death over their self-determination where they have too much at stake to fail. Powerful men may have a Domino Theory, but such a mighty collapsing wall of dominoes will not be stopped.
“I warn you—I beseech you! So beware.”